With Hurricane Irma poised to punch Florida in the gut, the U.S. House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a $15 billion disaster aid package that should keep relief efforts here and in Texas running for the time being. The legislation, which also extended government funding and the federal borrowing limit until December, was the first significant display of bipartisanship between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats. That sort of collaboration will be necessary from Washington to Tallahassee to ensure Floridians get the assistance they need in the aftermath of this powerful hurricane.
The legislation should help both Texas and Florida cope with major storms. It includes $7.4 billion for grants for housing in affected areas and another $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which otherwise would have risked running out of funding at a critical time. There also is $450 million for the Small Business Authority disaster program. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, with her hometown preparing for a direct hit from Irma, urged her colleagues to vote for the package. Inconceivably, two Florida Republicans — Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach and Ted Yoho of Gainesville — voted against the legislation. They chose to remain ideologically pure on fighting a rise in the federal debt limit rather than acting in the best interests of Floridians facing a catastrophic hurricane.
This won't be the last time the president and Congress will be called on to help. Irma is larger than Hurricane Andrew, which devastated Miami-Dade County in 1992 and left behind more than $26 billion in damage. With Irma poised late Friday to cut a path up the length of the state, insurers say the losses could be far higher. That would require plenty of federal and state assistance, and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told his colleagues to be prepared for a potential special legislative session to respond — just as the Florida Legislature did 25 years ago after Andrew.
Fortunately, Florida is better prepared for Irma. Statewide, structures now have to be built to withstand winds of at least 111 mph. Miami-Dade and Broward counties have even tougher building codes. Those more stringent requirements will be tested like never before by Irma, and while there still could be significant damage, the tougher codes are bound to help.
Second, the state's property insurance market is in better shape than it has been in years. State-run Citizens Property Insurance, which was created after Andrew and for years was the largest insurer, has scaled back to about 450,000 policies. It has more than enough money in reserve to cover its claims after a 1-in-100-year storm, and it has access to enough money to cover about double that much. The state Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which can step in if insurers run out of money to pay claims, also has healthy reserves of about $15 billion in cash. The biggest question is how the untested smaller insurers that took policies out of Citizens will perform following Irma.
The focus today, of course, is on Irma's final approach to Florida and making last-minute preparations. This hurricane will test the state's emergency response, building codes and insurance industry. It also will test the ability of elected leaders at the federal, state and local levels to work together to help Floridians recover.